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The one book every Columbo fan should own

There’s not a whole lot of Columbo literature out there – and what is available is pretty much all on my bookshelf: a handful of excellent ’70s novels (including 2 original tales), a book of short stories by character creator William Link, and a series of rather patchy novels penned in the ’90s in which Columbo investigates real world crimes like the Helter Skelter Murders and the assassination of JFK.

They’re all worth reading if you can get your hands on them, but if you’re a serious fan of Lieutenant Columbo the one book you absolutely positively have to dig up is Mark Dawidziak’s masterpiece The Columbo Phile. In short, this is my Columbo bible.

The Columbo Phile

Essential reading for the serious Columbo fan

To give it its full title, The Columbo Phile: A Casebook, is a very special publication. Written by author, journalist and critic Mark Dawidziak, and published in 1989 just before the series made its comeback, the book is a complete and illustrated history of the Columbo show from its inception as a stage show, through its pilot episodes and all seven 1970s’ seasons.

As it was an officially sanctioned book, Dawidziak was granted access to show creators William Link and Richard Levinson (the latter passing away in 1987 shortly after the draft of the book was completed), and the main man himself, Peter Falk – who even wrote a short foreword. He also got to input from several of the best-known guest stars, including Patrick McGoohan, Leonard Nimoy, George Hamilton, Robert Conrad, Ricardo Montalban and many more.

This all helps give some great colour and fascinating insights into how the show was made and what Peter Falk was like to work with. Falk’s on-going run-ins with the studio over wage demands and quality control make for particularly interesting reading. He was even barred from the set while filming Season 1 as relations between star and studio soured over the latter attempting to renege on a deal to let Falk direct an episode.

“If you’re a serious fan of Lieutenant Columbo the one book you absolutely positively have to dig up is Mark Dawidziak’s The Columbo Phile.”

Invariably Falk would have his way, and as the show increased in popularity his wages sky-rocketed from $100,000 per episode in Season 3 to $132,000 in Season 4, and $300,000 in Season 6 – the equivalent of nearly $1.3m today. But the studio kept paying because Columbo was worth it.

There’s some great background on the creation and development of the Columbo character (his first official outing came in a 1-hour TV mystery entitled Enough Rope, with Burt Freed in the role), and Dawidziak provides both a synopsis of every episode and a critique.

I’ve championed the book on my @columbophile Twitter account a few times, and the similarity between the book’s title and my Twitter handle even had some folk thinking I was its author! Of course, on closer inspection, with Dawidziak rating my very favourite episode Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case as one of the weakest of the entire 70s series; and ranking my ultimate least favourite Last Salute to the Commodore as a highlight, we’re clearly very different people.

Columbo book

That notwithstanding, it’s a book I heartily recommend. But there’s a catch! It’s out of print and only available second hand – sometimes at quite a cost. I bought my own, very high quality, copy for the princely sum of 80 British pounds via a second hand seller on Amazon, but it can be found for less there and on eBay – particularly if you’re happy to accept a less-than-pristine copy.

For those that do dig deep to unearth a copy, it’ll be a sound investment. And if you’re lucky enough to be the owner of a copy I’d love to hear your views on the book. Leave a comment below, and perhaps between us we can convince a few more fans to add this cracking Columbo book to their collection.

Read my interview with Mark Dawidziak about the book’s 30th anniversary here

PS – Although it’s not technically a Columbo book, Peter Falk’s autobiography Just One More Thing is an absolutely delightful read. There are plenty of recollections of Columbo, naturally, but the tales of his life are extremely interesting.

Plus it’s written in such a style that it’s almost as if Peter himself is narrating it straight to you. It’s easy to find online and not expensive. So grab a copy NOW!

Buy on Amazon here.

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46 thoughts on “The one book every Columbo fan should own

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  8. I found this on the SCRIBD website: I don’t know how legitimate the posting is.

    Recently, I purchased another book Columbo fans should own: the 1983 anthology “Alfred Hitchcock’s a Choice of Evils.” It contains the William Link-Richard Levinson short story (published in the March 1960 Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine) “Dear Corpus Delicti” (originally entitled “May I Come In?”). This story appeared before the July 31, 1960 “The Chevy Mystery” production of “Enough Rope” (with Bert Freed as Columbo) and the 1962 stage play “Prescription: Murder” (with Thomas Mitchell as Columbo). “Dear Corpus Delicti” is where the argument-on-the-plane perfect alibi scheme in “Prescription: Murder” originated, but the story has a very different ending. The NYPD detective, not named Columbo, appears only briefly at the end — but you can imagine Peter Falk as that minor character.

  9. I love this book! For a few years, I got it through the local university library over and over, all the while watching for a decent but affordable copy to appear. I somehow snagged for the mere sum of $34.99 on amazon. There was one offered at that price for that one day. The day before, the cheapest was $87.00, and the day after, there wasn’t one under $95.00. So, I’ve treasured it, and know right where it is at any given moment.
    Your review is great. I met the author many years ago – he also teaches at the local university in addition to writing for the Akron Beacon Journal – and I wish I’d realized at the time that he’d written this book. I think he did an amazing job at capturing the flavor of each episode, as well as all the background on Levinson and Link and beyond. It’s no wonder he had such access to so many involved. Great book!

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  12. “The Columbo Phile” is an absolute masterpiece of TV history writing. It’s a real gem and I’ve been a proud owner of a copy for years. I read it almost every time I watch a “Columbo” episodes.
    By the way, was there ever a book published on the ABC years?

    • I think other writers have examined the entire series, but without access to the primary sources Dawidziak had. I’d have to dig around to find out titles. I’d love to see Dawidziak do a follow-up, including the new episodes.

      • I agree. I’d love to know some behind the scenes tidbits about those ABC episodes like why does “Agenda for Murder” have two cinematographers (it’s also interestingly the last episode Robert Seaman shot).

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  17. My favorite – IMO the practically perfect episode – is “A Friend In Deed”. I probably don’t need to explain why to Columbo lovers. I am curious what Mr. D, thinks of it.

    • He rates it highly, although he doesn’t so much give his own opinion on this episode as allow the episode contributors Ben Gazzara, Richard Kiley and Peter Fischer to talk about how much they enjoyed the experience and how much fun it was to be on the set.

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  19. We discovered your blog about a year ago and very much enjoy it. Just purchased a hardcover copy of “The Columbo Phile: A Casebook” for $109.99 USD from an Amazon seller. My friend and I are huge Columbo fans and are anxiously awaiting its arrival. Will definitely check back and share our views.

  20. I have finally got my hands on a copy after all these years. I got it for £68 on ebay. It arrived yesterday and i read it in one day. Its pretty good although i personally wouldn’t have spent £68 on it given the choice. But after i had read this article a few months back i really wanted to read the book for myself.

    It was interesting that the writer said that he felt Publish or Perish was one of the few shorter episodes that could have been a two hour one and would have benefited from a longer running time. I’ve always thought that too and it was nice to see that someone else agreed with me. If i had to name one of the 75 minute episodes that could have been a longer one it would always be Publish

    I can’t agree with the positive review for Dagger of the mind, which is one of my least favourite episodes and i also don’t agree with his view that Make Me A Perfect Murder was the weakest on Season 5, that will always be The Conspirators for me, i have never rated that episode. I may also be in a minority here but i never liked Murder Under Glass much either

    All in all an interesting read. The copy i have is in excellent condition and, being a collectors item, worth hanging on to.

    • I agree about Publish, too. It’s really a quite complex view for 75 mins. You certainly can’t afford to watch it with only half a mind on the plot. I don’t agree with all of Mark D’s opinion on episodes either. He describes Mind Over Mayhem and Dagger of the Mind as excellent episodes. I think they’re easily amongst the worst of the 70s episodes. And he rates Bye Bye Sky High as POOR and it’s the best of the lot in my opinion. I’m not a fan of The Conspirators, either, although quite like Murder Under Glass. The central premise is flawed, though. The restaurants are now so revered in their own right that Gerard wouldn’t have any hold over them. So what if he penned some negative reviews now? They don’t need him anymore.

      • Dagger is definitely one of the weakest, i tend to skip it whenever i am watching the episodes and there aren’t many episodes i skip. I don’t mind Mind Over Mayhem but i would describe it as average. Bye Bye is a good episode, i really like Columbo’s poignant conversation with Brandt near the end of the episode where Brandt describes his childhood as ”painful, lonely years”

        What is your opinion of Make Me A Perfect Murder? It seems to split opinion more than a lot of other episodes i find, but its my personal favourite. A lot of that has to do with how much i like the character of Kay Freestone i think

        • I like Perfect Murder, but think it’s another one that suffers from the longer running time. There’s that weird sub-plot between Kay and Valerie that isn’t fully explored, and Kay’s meeting with Columbo in her old family home seems weird and gratuitous to me. That aside, I really like Trish VanDevere in this, and the getaway from the murder scene is really tense and exciting viewing. Plus Jimmy McEachin guest stars. What a bonus!

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  22. I’d love to have a revised edition. I wrote the author many years ago and he said that he was hoping one could happen, but I guess the demand wasn’t there. It’s really one of the best of the many books about classic TV available.

    Oh, and you’re both wrong: Sky-High and Last Salute are probably my two least favorite episodes of the original run! 🙂

  23. Right on! I own both tomes & love them so much. The Columbo Phile is, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in permanent residence at my bedside table, so I have easy access to it when I watch one of the classic episodes. The interviews with the co-stars, creators & Falk himself are wonderful organic additions to the reviews. & his autobio is just a joy – quirky & out there, but so lovable & witty. I saw that they are charging big bucks for The Columbo Phile, but anyone can snap up this great book is in for such a treat.

  24. On your recommendation I have now bought said book. In good condition and didn’t cost the earth. Worth every penny. Books of this size usually take me a month or more to get through. I’ll have finished this within a week.

  25. I bought “The Columbo Phile” when it first came out. Devoured it. Not literally. Quite the opposite. I’ve treated it reverently from the beginning so, although well read, it’s been maintained in great condition for 26 years. I never imagined it now would be a collectible.

    • My own version is in good condition, although well thumbed and I’ve had it for about 10 years. I paid about 80 British pounds for it, I think, which I still consider good value!

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  27. They have it on Amazon through third party sellers for over $40. I’ve read the Helter Skelter one many years ago, and can’t even remember anything about it. Lol

  28. I loved this book to death. Literally. It’s on its last legs, with spine snapped in dozens of places, pages hanging by a thread, pencil marks next to episodes To keep track of those I was either able to record off the TV when A&E was airing episodes, or when I then joined the Columbia House club and paid through the nose for VHS cassettes that were revelations in that they included footage excised by A&E to make room for more commercials. I would like to find a copy of this that is in better condition, but have been put off by the prices. Perhaps it’s more fun anyway to read my well loved copy in any case. I think the only further harm I could do it is if I read it in the bathtub and dropped it. Glad to stumble on your blog. I admit I assumed it was officially linked to the book. I can’t wait to consume your blog thoroughly, knowing that it won’t suffer the same wear and tear as my beloved book.

    • That sounds like a very well-loved book! Thanks for your comments on the blog, too. I hope you continue to enjoy. Be careful if reading on iPad in the bath, though. If you drop it, we might have a Double Shock style electrocution to investigate…

  29. This book is well and truly the bible of Columbo. A shame it is out of print and ends before the series came back. I think it’s relatively well written in regarded to finding out what was going on behind the scenes and you learn quite a bit about Peter Falk. Sadly though some of the reviews let it down, with some of them being too short and others way off the mark. I find it quite sad that Dawidziak criticises the character study aspect of Bye Bye Sky High IQ when it’s possibly the greatest thing about it.

    Now in regard to owning a copy, I have to be honest, I got mine for nothing! I somehow managed to find a digital copy online and could not believe my luck. Certainly will make sure I never lose it. To be honest if it had gone another year or so I would probably have bought it seeing how mythical the status of the book is.

    Great blog as ever.

    • Thanks Dom! I agree that some of the reviews are a little on the short side and some are mysteriously over-rated (Mind Over Mayhem? Dagger of the Mind?) and the strength is really the behind the scenes tales. I’d love to speak to Mark D about it sometime.

      Great find to uncover a digital copy, by the way!


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